1 Corinthians 3




On Divisions in the Church (3:1-9)

1 When Paul first ministered in Corinth, he could not speak to the new Corinthian believers as he would to mature Christians; rather, he spoke to them as to spiritual infants. Even though they had believed in Christ and had received His Holy Spirit, they were still worldly.6

We must understand the meaning of this word worldly. A “worldly” man is a man who walks in the ways of the world. He loves the things of the world more than he loves God. The worldly man lives according to the sinful nature (Romans 8:4); that is, he remains under the control of his sinful thoughts and desires. His sinful nature rules in his life. The worldly man has not become free of his sinful nature (see Romans 6:11-12). The worldly man can also be called a “natural man,” or a man without the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14). And he can also be called a man “of the flesh.” All these expressions describe the same kind of man.

In this verse there is an essential teaching. Usually Paul refers to believers in Christ as “spiritual,” and to non-believers as “unspiritual” or “worldly” (see Romans 7:14). But here Paul calls the Corinthian believers “worldly.” The reason is this: New and immature believers are partly spiritual and partly unspiritual (or worldly). When a person believes in Christ, he receives new spiritual life through the Holy Spirit. But that person is spiritually like a newborn infant. He must grow spiritually. Even though he is a Christian, he is still partly unspiritual and worldly; he still has the habits and desires of the world. He still is drawn to the world. In his heart there is a struggle between his new spiritual self and his old worldly self (see Romans 7:1921; Galatians 5:16-17 and comments). As we grow spiritually and become more and more mature, we gradually, with the help of the Holy Spirit, gain victory over our sinful nature; and in the end we will no longer be worldly but will be spiritual (see 2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:13-15 and comments).

2 In the beginning Paul fed the new Corinthian believers milk, that is, the simple and basic and comforting truths of the Gospel—such as: God loves us and is willing to forgive us (John 3:16); Christ died for our sins (Romans 5:8); Christ gives us rest (Matthew 11:28). These teachings are like milk, suitable for spiritual infants (see Hebrews 5:11-14; 1 Peter 2:2).

On the other hand, solid food consists of the more deep and difficult teachings of Scripture. These would include the discourses of Jesus, such as those found in Matthew Chapters 5-7 and John Chapters 13-16. They would include the doctrinal teachings of Paul. They would also include the exhortation and warning passages, examples of which are found in Mark 8:3435; Romans 8:13; 2 Timothy 3:12; Hebrews 10:26-31.

A wise pastor or preacher tries to get an idea of the spiritual “age” or condition of a person before deciding what kind of spiritual “food” to feed him—whether milk or solid food. Some need mainly “milk”; others need “solid food.” To give a tiny child a big piece of meat is not helpful; it may become stuck in his throat!

When Paul first lived in Corinth, the new believers there were not ready to eat solid food; they were like infants in Christ (verse 1). Now as Paul writes this letter, three or four years have passed; what is the spiritual condition of these Corinthian believers now? They are still spiritual infants! They are still not ready for solid food; they are still not ready for the deeper teachings of the Gospel. They have not grown. They have been born of the Spirit, but they are not yet living by the Spirit (Gal-atians 5:16).

3 How does Paul know that the Corinthian believers are still spiritual “infants”? How does he know that they are still “worldly”? He knows because of the jealousy and quarreling among them. Jealousy and quarreling does not occur among mature spiritual Christians. These Corinthians were acting like mere men—that is, like natural, worldly men. They were still behaving as if they had never become Christians!

4 Here we see what the quarreling was about in the Corinthian church: the Christians had divided themselves into opposing parties (1 Corinthians 1:12). This was the proof that they were indeed worldly, or un-spiritual.

Let us examine ourselves. How much are we like those Corinthian Christians? We need to ask ourselves: Am I worldly or am I spiritual?

We can learn another thing from these first four verses of Chapter 3: namely, Christians may not behave in accordance with the Spirit in everything all the time; nevertheless, they are still true Christians. Sometimes when we look at a brother who is behaving in a worldly way, we are tempted to think: “He is not a true Christian; he is worldly.” However, only God knows for sure who is a true Christian and who isn’t; it is not our place to judge our brother. Yes, we can look at our brother’s behavior and say it is not like Christ’s; but whether or not our brother belongs to Christ we cannot say. Yes, it is possible our brother is not a true Christian; it’s possible that he has confessed Christ only with his lips. But it’s also possible that he is indeed a true Christian in his heart. Therefore, even though our brother (who claims to be a Christian) may be leading a worldly life, we must still regard him as a Christian brother. Regardless of the actual state of his faith, we must not judge him; judging is only for God to do (see Matthew 7:1; Romans 2:1; 14:1 and comments).

5-7 Why should the Corinthians follow after Apollos or Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12). Apollos and Paul are only men. They are servants, and their master is Christ. Paul plants the seed (Acts 18:1,4), and Apollos waters it (Acts 18:27). But that is only the work of gardeners. We Christians are only God’s instruments; we are His “gardeners” who plant and water the seed, which is God’s word (Mark 4:3,14). But the One who does the real work of making the plant grow is God Himself. It is God alone who produces the fruit—that is, new believers. God alone brings men to faith in Christ. Man is nothing; all the power is of God. Therefore, as Paul quoted earlier: Let him who boasts boast in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31).

Paul and Apollos are the servants of one master, Christ. If they have only one master, why should they each have a separate party in the Corinthian church? For one master, only one party is needed!

8 Paul and Apollos have one master, but that master has given them two different jobs to do. In the same way, we too have one master but do different jobs for that master (see 1 Corinthians 12:4-6). And each of us shall be rewarded according to [our] own labor—that is, we shall each receive a reward according to the particular job we have done. Notice that we are not rewarded primarily according to the success or failure of our work, but rather according to our labor, our effort and diligence. In Jesus’ parable of the talents, the man who gained five additional talents and the man who gained two additional talents each received the same reward (Matthew 25:20-23). The Christian with only a few evident gifts and talents will receive the same reward as the Christian with many gifts and talents; they both will be rewarded primarily according to their effort and diligence. In Luke 19:16-19, Christ’s illustration is slightly different, but the teaching is the same. According to Luke’s version of the parable of the talents, the servants were all given the same gift—namely, one mina. But each servant received a different reward; that is, one servant received ten cities and another servant received only five. These servants received different rewards because their effort and diligence were different. In other words, each received a reward according to his own labor.

9 Paul describes himself and Apollos as God’s fellow workers, God’s field hands. And the Corinthian Christians, as a church, are God’s field. Each one of them is a seedling planted in that field (Mark 4:20).

The church (that is, the body of believers) can also be described as a building—God’s building (see Ephesians 2:22; 1 Peter 2:5 and comments).

God’s Building (3:10-23)

10 Paul says: I laid a foundation as an expert builder. Is Paul boasting in himself here? No. He says he has done everything by the grace God has given me (see Romans 1:5; 1 Corinthians 15:10; Ephe-sians 3:7 and comments). God gave Paul the grace and skill to be an expert builder. Paul laid the foundation—and that foundation was Christ Himself (verse 11). That is why Paul is an expert builder; he chose the best foundation!

Paul was the first Christian to go to Corinth. He established the church there; that is, he laid the foundation. Now the Corinthians themselves had begun to help in building their church; that is, they had begun to build on Paul’s foundation. Paul exhorts them, therefore, to make sure that what they build is as good as the foundation. Let them not build a hut on a foundation designed for a palace! But each one should be careful how he builds (on the foundation). Those Corinthians, in fact, were building a hut!

11 The foundation of all our work must be Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 2:19-22 and comment). If the sole foundation of a church is Jesus Christ, then divisions and parties will not arise.

12-13 We can build God’s church using different materials, because we each have been given different gifts and skills. It is better, of course, if flammable materials are not used. But whatever material we use, we must be careful and build diligently.

The Day Paul refers to here is the day of judgment, which will occur at the end of the world. On that day God will examine all the work we have done. And He will test it with fire (verse 13). If we have built a church, God will allow fire or persecution to come upon that church to see if it will remain faithful (Job 23:10).

14-15 if what we have done is in some way displeasing to God, then our work will be burned up, and our reward in heaven will be less—that is, we will suffer loss (verse 15). But we ourselves will not lose our salvation.7

For example, if a builder builds a house poorly, that house will later fall down; and the builder, instead of earning his wages, will be forced to pay for the damage. But the builder himself will not be harmed; only his purse will suffer. In the same way, we may suffer the loss of our heavenly reward, but without losing our salvation.

We do not know what kind of heavenly reward God is going to give us for our work. But if our work is good, then God will especially honor us in some way (see Matthew 7:24-27; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 John 8).

16 Each Christian has been built together into God’s temple, or church. We believers are the stones of this temple (1 Peter 2:5). God’s Spirit (the Holy Spirit) dwells within us, within our temple (see 1 Corinthians 6:19; Ephesians 2:22 and comments).

17 How can God’s temple, or church, be destroyed? if we, the members—the stones—become worldly and unspiritual, our temple will be destroyed.8 Our temple (church) can be destroyed by the sins, the worldliness, of its members. It is destroyed by false teaching, divisions, quarrels, and slander of one member against another. Therefore, let us beware! Whoever destroys God’s church, God Himself will destroy.

18 The Corinthians considered themselves wise. Perhaps they were “wise” in worldly wisdom, but such wisdom is foolishness in God’s sight (verse 19). It is much better to be foolish in the world’s eyes than to be foolish in God’s eyes! (see 1 Corinthians 1:27).

Let us not consider ourselves wise. Rather, let us be humble. Instead of relying on our own “wisdom,” let us seek to learn from God. If the Corinthians had done this, such divisions would never have arisen in their church (see Isaiah 5:21; 1 Corinthians 8:2; Galatians 6:3)

19-20 Paul here quotes from Job 5:13 and Psalm 94:11 (see 1 Corinthians 1:1920,25)

21 Therefore, says Paul, let there be no more boasting about men, men such as Paul and Apollos. Let the Corinthians stop following after men like Paul and Apollos. Rather, let them follow Christ alone (see 1 Corinthians 4:6). If they are going to boast, let them boast in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:29,31). God has given them all things in Christ (see Romans 8:32; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Ephesians 1:3). It is because they are in Christ that they have obtained all things. Where, then, is their boasting? Let them rather thank God for His unspeakable gift to them—the Lord Jesus Christ.

22 God gave to the Corinthians the apostles—Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter). But the Corinthians had accepted one and rejected another. Yet they all were apostles; they all were God’s gifts. Why should they have rejected a gift of God? The “wisdom” of the Corinthians was indeed foolishness!

All things are yours. The entire world is ours! The man who is not in Christ belongs to the world. But for the man who is in Christ, the world belongs to him! Christ has complete authority over all the earth, and He has given His authority to us (see Matthew 28:18). But we believers will not only inherit the earth; we will also inherit the kingdom of heaven! (Matthew 5:3,5,10).

23 All things are ours. Except one thing—our own self! All things are ours—but we are not our own. We are Christ’s. We are His servants. He has bought us. He has bought us at a price, and the price was His own blood (see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 and comment).

All things are ours because Christ is in us and we are in Christ (John 15:4-5). If we stop remaining in Christ, we shall lose all these things which we have been given (John 15:6).

Christ is of God. Just as Christ is in us, so God is in Christ (see John 17:22-23). But Christ is not only of God; He is God. “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).